Let's begin by dealing with the Inevitable Dumb Question. This is, as everybody is supposed to have heard, the first novel in 17 years by the Howard Hughes of American letters, the elusive Thomas Pynchon, whose last novel, "Gravity's Rainbow," is thought by many (including your reviewer) to be the most stunning American fiction of at least this century. For those who like occult resemblances (and Pynchon certainly does), 17 years also is the interval between Joyce's "Ulysses" (1922) and his "Finnegans Wake" (1939). So, as I said, arises the IDQ: Is "Vineland" as great as "Gravity's Rainbow"?
The answer, of course, is that if you can really ask something like that, you are probably also the sort who tries to decide which of Fred Astaire's numbers are better than which others.
"Vineland" is, quite simply, one of those books that will make the world-- our world, our daily chemical-preservative, plastic-wrapped bread--a little more tolerable, a little more human. Kafka says somewhere that the books we need are the books that are ice axes to break up the frozen sea within ourselves; and Pynchon, here as he always has, makes the cut.
Like Astaire, and like two of his other spiritual comrades, Thelonious Monk and Walt Whitman, Pynchon has grown by remaining the same. The voice--absolutely unmistakable and absolutely inimitable--has not changed since "V" (1963) and "The Crying of Lot 49" (1966). By very fast turns vulgar, stand-up comic, elegiac, bright-kid silly (do you know what a "fecoventilatory collision" might be?), plangent, and heartbreakingly, theologically serious, it is a complex and perfectly articulated instrument. It is--OK, I'll say it-- the American voice of the late 20th Century, the seismograph and the horoscope--amid a debasing popular culture, a manic technology, and a progressively sclerotic politics--of our search for--what? Well, you know, for salvation.